Comments aren’t for atheist evangelism

Comments aren’t for atheist evangelism March 18, 2015

Connor Wood

Important news update: I’ve changed the comments policy at Science On Religion. As of today, I’m only accepting comments that make substantive points about the content of articles. Criticisms and disagreements will be heartily welcomed, but one-note screeds for particular ideological positions – especially, but not limited to, Internet atheism – won’t be. If I determine that someone’s mission on my comments board is to hammer on his or her own views without any intention of taking part in substantive discourse, that person will be booted. Some of you (whoever you are) may disagree strongly with this new stance, and you’re perfectly within your rights to feel that way. But it doesn’t change my policy.

Here’s a recently deleted example of what the comments section isn’t for:

“Magical wizards are nonsense. Miracles are nonsense. Zombies are nonsense. Accepting outlandish claims without a single shred of supporting evidence is nonsense…what real benefits does religion provide that cannot be had by secular means? Or, more simply, what actual good is religion?”

This person is manifestly not interested in discussing religion or research about religion. He/she wants to evangelize for atheism. There’s no reason for me to provide such a person with another platform, when Patheos already offers dozens of very active atheist blogs. Science On Religion is not an atheist blog; it’s a blog about scientific perspectives on religion. And as it turns out, properly scientific perspectives on religion do not support the claim that it’s “nonsense” with no benefits. They don’t support the truth of religious claims, either. But at this point, the data that religion has social and individual benefits is so overwhelming that saying that religion has no benefits is active science denial. See this post for a summary of religion’s secular benefits, which are relatively stable – although relatively small.

Why Does This Matter?

One reason why it’s important not to ignore religion’s benefits is that many of the mechanisms that drive religion’s benefits for individuals and groups are also the very same mechanisms that generate religion’s darkest products. One researcher calls collective ritual the “biotechnology of group formation,” referring to things like drumming and praying together, moving in synchrony, and generating alternate states of consciousness. In cultures all around the world, these tools can bind people to one another and create a subjective sense of meaning and unity in living. Yet, according to one research team, religious ritual “reduces conflict within groups, but it generally increases conflict across groups.” For example, there’s good evidence that going to temple or mosque is a reliable predictor of anti-Muslim or anti-Israeli sentiments (respectively) in the Middle East.

The trouble is this: religious practice in general really does predict higher social capital, higher subjective well-being, and better outcomes on a variety of relational and health indices. This holds true even in secular Europe. The reason for these effects is fairly simple: humans aren’t built to be individuals; we “need to be bound into a community that shares norms and values in order to flourish.” And religion – including myths, ritual practices, dancing, and praying – is a collection of the behavioral, affective, and cognitive tools people have always used to form those communities.

BUT…those bounded communities are also the tribes that divide people from one another. The tighter we’re bundled into a meaningful world of shared norms and values, the more alien and inhuman someone from another, different world looks. One only has to glance overseas – to Europe, where anti-Semitism and interreligious tensions are quickly, and terrifyingly, spiraling to levels not seen since World War II, or Iraq, where ISIS is, well, ISIS – to see that religion can drive horrendous and bloody conflict. It always has, and it probably always will.

So we should just get rid of religion, right? Wrong – this problem is way more intractable than that. The Enlightenment hope that we will eventually overcome tribalism and forge a unified cosmopolitan society is almost certainly a physical and social impossibility. Homo sapiens has evolved to function optimally only in smallish groups – “moral communities,” as psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls them. Without tight ingroups, life is barely worth living – literally, if you look at the data on the relationship between suicide and social atomism. In individualist cultures without tight religious ingroups, reproduction slows to a crawl, and emotional dysregulation (particularly in the forms of anxiety and depression) becomes epidemic. Sound like a certain secular Western civilization you know?

But the alternative? It’s just as ugly – with tight ingroups, life becomes pinched, tribal, and warlike. Outsiders are non-humans. The capacity for innovation and discovery withers and dies. Cultural habits become lead weights, preventing much-needed change in the context of cultural or environmental disturbance.

Here’s the thing: this is a Catch-22 that runs so deep, and is so intractable, that I don’t think people can fathom it. My purpose with this blog is to try to fathom it anyway. One of the burning questions driving my own research in this field is whether this tension between “groupishness” and individualism is capable of being overcome, ever – even partially.

What I mean is that I personally believe that secular modernity has largely failed when it comes to helping people find meaning in life (see the prescient 1990s book Jihad Vs. McWorld for a good treatment of this failure). This may be the reason I attract a lot of indignant commenters (who often haven’t bothered to read my posts) – at some level, I am pointing out major, structural flaws in our entire social OS. This directly challenges the narrative of progress on which all of modernity (not to mention Star Trek) is founded, which in turn sends shivers of existential horror down the spines of people who have, as John Gray recently pointed out, signifiant personal investments in the narrative of Western secular triumphalism. It stinks to be told that your dreamed-of eschaton just isn’t coming.

What’s the Upshot?

I could be wrong about these beliefs. Who knows? I appreciate hearing from readers – assuming I still have any after this post – who think I’m wrong, because good debates (like the one pinned to the top of this post from two weeks ago) hone ideas and clear away the mental cobwebs. I hope that this new comments policy will encourage substantive debate, in which readers think over the implications of the research I’m reporting or the opinions I’m espousing, and offer criticisms or rejoinders that further the discussion.

What I won’t tolerate is people who don’t read my posts, or who persistently refuse to acknowledge evidence that challenges their positions, who then proceed to trumpet their own views repetitively. This blog isn’t a sounding board for atheism. If that’s what you want, please go elsewhere. As I said, there are dozens of blogs at Patheos that serve just fine for that purpose. I want serious conversations and critiques, serious disagreements, and pointed responses to arguments and data. If you say that religion doesn’t seem to have benefits, at this point the burden of proof is frankly on you. I or someone else may provide evidence that, in fact, religion does offer a certain benefit – your responsibility is then to take that data into account in your reply. If you see a flaw in the study design, say so. If you question the interpretations, do so. Maybe you’ll want to go visit the Epiphenom blog for studies that challenge the Durkheimian hypotheses I often champion. But don’t keep banging on your own opinion without acknowledging the evidence or arguments.

A Fuller Mandate

I’m hopeful that this change will give me psychic room to treat religion more critically myself. As I’ve irresponsibly wasted countless hours trying to negotiate with people who don’t intend to negotiate, I’ve found myself pushed into a pro-religion posture by default, far too often. Of course, I am, in fact, positively disposed to religious things, which is why I got into this field in the first place. I’ve enjoyed myself at Voudu fêtes and Protestant services alike; I love the sound of the Muslim call to prayer, and the plaintive song of the Jewish shemah. This doesn’t mean I muddle religions all up into one, but I do enjoy the countless expressions of human yearning – an appreciation I think we could all stand to cultivate.

By the same token, I dislike cultural chauvinism of any kind, including the disguised version of Western jingoism that blithely assumes that scientistic rationalism is the sacred tèlos of human progress. But religion is complicated and disturbing. Its dark sides can be truly dark. And I think we are in for more darkness in the coming years, as interreligious tensions in Europe grow and American religious resistance to evolution slouches on intransigently. We’ll need to actually understand religion if we want to deal with these issues, and that’s why I’m moderating this comment board more strictly. I can’t afford for these conversations to get hijacked by ideologues. If that means my posts go without comments at all, that’s a price I’m very willing to pay. But I’d rather have good comments and good conversations, like the ones so many of you have contributed to here in the past – and hopefully will in the future.

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